Caden Clark

The New York Red Bulls’ draw on Decision Day at Nashville SC may have mathematically clinched their Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs berth, but their most important match down the stretch in achieving that goal came two games prior against CF Montréal.

Tied 0-0 in stoppage time against a direct rival for one of the Eastern Conference’s final postseason spots, Patryk Klimala floated a cross toward teenage star Caden Clark at the back post. Clark, who had been slowed down this year by an appendectomy, hadn’t notched a goal contribution since July. But the 18-year-old deftly redirected his header to Fabio to assist the game-winning goal. It was a three-point swing between the clubs. The Red Bulls finished two points ahead of Montréal in seventh place, booking a 12th straight trip to the postseason.

The playoffs, which were a distant dream during RBNY's summer as points slipped away, were suddenly again a likely destination. Now, they'll visit the No. 2-seeded Philadelphia Union on Saturday in a Round One game, looking to spring an upset (2:30 pm ET | MLSsoccer.com & App, TUDN, Univision).

“We’re not comfortable,” Clark told MLSsoccer.com. “We’re a dark horse team in these playoffs that can go far.”

The Red Bulls leaned into their high-energy, all-action pressing system during the fall, plus a defensive unit that quietly grew to be among MLS' best. Their 33 goals conceded was tied for the league's fewest alongside Nashville and the Seattle Sounders.

“You look at how we play, we’re just an energized team who can beat any team on any day,” Clark said. “If we have a good game, I strongly believe we can win just based on who we are and how we play.”

Defensive prowess coupled with several players, particularly Clark, who can turn a seemingly low-quality chance into a goal is a good formula for postseason success.

“Not only me, this team we score a lot of goals out of nowhere,” said Clark, who has seven career MLS goals despite posting just 2.89 expected goals (xG). “We might not have momentum or the ball, but we can score a goal almost randomly. For me it was weird at first, I was used to needing momentum to score. It’s a strength of ours. That’s just who we are.”

Clark hopes to extend his RBNY career with a playoff run. When the season ends, his transfer to German side RB Leipzig kicks in, though there have been talks about potentially being loaned back to New York.

Nothing has been decided just yet between the sister clubs.

“As of right now, the plan is to go straight to Leipzig after the season,” said Clark, who placed eighth on this year's 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list. “But we’ll regroup at the end of the season and discuss, see what’s best for me to develop. Obviously you need game time at 18 years old.”

Leipzig struggled to open the season but have rebounded of late. They’re up to fifth in the Bundesliga table with 18 points after 11 games as form improves under first-year head coach Jesse Marsch, who left the Red Bulls in 2018 to become an assistant at Leipzig.

Clark believes he’s ready for Europe.

“You rise to the occasion,” Clark said. “If I was put into a Bundesliga game, I think my level would go up. That’s how it works. If I was put in a situation, I’d adjust and do my best for the team. I’d say I’m ready for the challenge.”